Sunday, January 19, 2014

Meeting Place

 John 1:29-42

            Sometimes the most surprising thing about the gospel of Jesus is just how practical it is. 

            That is not to say that it is always mundane, familiar, comfortable.  But it is practical.  It is practicable.  Like many people, I really don’t care to hear much about a faith that is theoretical, arcane, other-worldly.  The vast majority of people whom I know and to whom I listen want their faith to connect with their daily lives.  I do too.  I mean it.  (If you think for a moment that somehow clergy don’t have a problem applying their faith every day of their lives, then once and for all let me disabuse you of that notion.)  My problem is that the gospel, as I hear and understand it, generally calls me to rethink some of my most basic assumptions.  That has something to do with daily life all right, but it certainly does not suggest that Jesus is something you can slip into a ready-made cavity with little discomfort or little change.  To the contrary, following Jesus is not just a hobby; it is a way of life.  It is specifically the life of a learner.  That is what a disciple is: essentially a learner, a student who follows a teacher in order to receive valuable, even necessary, knowledge of the most important things from that teacher. The very nature of learning is that one does not do much of it for very long without being significantly changed.  (One of the fallacies, by the way, of much so-called education in this country, is that it is often presumed to be relatively painless if it is any good.  Quite the opposite is true.  That fact is not to be confused with the deep joy that comes from growing in insight as one learns the ropes from a master.  And I’ll bet that many of you have had just that experience.)

            Today’s lesson is about lessons, and our learning is possibly about learning itself.  If we get that, then the gospel story about the first disciples that attach themselves to Jesus begins to make sense.  Not only that, but it makes sense in way that has direct application to the way we might choose to be, or to become, disciples of Jesus as well.

            The story opens as John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him.  Unlike the story in Luke’s gospel, in which John and Jesus are cousins, John does not know Jesus at all.  But God has told him that when he sees the Spirit descend on and remain with someone, that is the one who baptizes with Holy Spirit.  John goes on to say that it was precisely for that reason that he, John, came baptizing with water—just so that the one who is Messiah, Son of God, who baptizes with Holy Spirit, could be revealed to Israel.   The next day John, standing with two of his disciples (he was a teacher as well), points to Jesus who is walking by and says, “Look!  There is the Lamb of God!”  It is the second time in the narrative that John has called Jesus that.  Clearly John the Evangelist, the storyteller (as distinct from John the Baptist), knows that phrase to be one which his readers will recognize and understand to point to the divine origin of Jesus as well as to his ministry as the sacrificed Passover Lamb whose death takes away the sin of the world (and reconciles the world to God).  It is a poignant phrase, this declaration.  John’s disciples pick up on it and immediately follow Jesus. 

            Amidst all of the details of this story, some of which are on the surface much more compelling than the fact that these two anonymous disciples of John begin following Jesus, this one little thing is pregnant with all sorts of surprising insights.  To begin with, there is no record that John in any way reacts to his disciples trailing off without him.  On the contrary, in this gospel John the Baptist consistently understands that he must decrease while Jesus increases.  Once he bears witness to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sin of the world, he has done his job and disappears from the story—quite differently from the way he is presented in the other three gospels.  But perhaps more surprising is that the two disciples follow Jesus.  The word has a double meaning.  They walk behind him, sure.  But what we are about to see is that following means that they shift their allegiance to him.  When they call him “Rabbi,” they acknowledge that now he, not John the Baptist, is their Διδασκαλος (Didaskolos), their Teacher. 

            All of this takes place within the larger narrative of the calling of disciples.  In this gospel, incidentally, there is no definitive list of twelve disciples.  Some names appear as disciples that are not even mentioned on the lists in the other gospels.  Disciple is not a member of a group or a club or even necessarily an inner circle; a disciple is a learner who follows the Teacher, the master.  Jesus does not literally call these two disciples as he is said to call others.  But that does not mean that they do not have a vocation.  The issue of vocation, or calling, is the relationship the follower has to the Teacher, not the way that relationship is initiated. 

            And that is where this story intersects with your story.  Few of you here do not have somewhere between mild interest and consuming passion around the issue of vocation.  What is your work?  What is your life calling?  What is your job?  Or, if you don’t have a job, how can you get one?  If we are lucky enough to get past the level of job as a means of livelihood, we begin wanting that job to have significance.  Even if it is not a job out in the work force—say, you are a stay-at-home parent, for example—you want some assurance that the work you are doing, the stuff of your life, is meaningful. 

            Is what you do your life?  Parker Palmer, an educator, says

I was in my early thirties when I began, literally to wake up to questions about my vocation.  By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances.  Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own.  Fearful that I was doing just that—but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach—I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling.

Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, ‘Let your life speak.’  I found those words encouraging, and I thought I understood what they meant:  ‘ Let the highest truths and values guide you.  Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.’  Because I had heroes at the time who seemed to be doing exactly that, this exhortation had incarnate meaning for me—it meant living a life like that of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks or Mahatma Ghandi or Dorothy Day, a life of high purpose.[1]

            Palmer goes on to say in this book called Let Your Life Speak that he set out to achieve lofty ideals, but found that trying to live more nobly a life that was not his own left him imitating heroes rather than listening to his heart.

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.  Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.[2]

            I want to suggest with considerable verve that listening to the deep truth within you is where vocation begins.  It is where discipleship begins.  And, if Jesus is your Teacher, I believe that he teaches just that.  In fact, I’ll go further.  I believe that Christ is an image of your truest and most perfect self, not a person or a master to be imitated, but whose example of being absolutely true to his deepest Self is worth yours and my following.  Did you get that?  Let me say it again.  If you follow Jesus, really and truly, you will be following your deepest and truest self.  And if you are listening quietly and deeply to your truest life, you will be following Jesus.  You will indeed be letting your life speak.  “The place God calls you to,” in Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted phrase, is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[3]  But you won’t get there by imagining that following Jesus equates with playing church or turning yourself into something that is at odds with what your own life is trying to tell you.  You won’t get there if you collect a lot of so-called “spiritual qualities,” like praying without ceasing, speaking in tongues, working your fingers to the bone for justice, demonstrating for peace, receiving every sacrament in the book.  None of those things is bad and I wouldn’t discourage any of them.  But that is not your life unless it is your life.  It is the work of the soul to bring into alignment your deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger.

            Parker Palmer’s heroes that he set out to imitate included Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we pause to celebrate this weekend.  The message of King is not that you need to be ordained like him or to speak like him or even to lead change like him.  The message of Martin Luther King, like Ghandi and Rosa Parks and St. Francis and Martin Luther, is that you listen to your own life and you live to the fullest what your life speaks to you and through you.  And the world’s deepest hunger is for you to do just that. 

            I do not know whether Andrew and the other disciple that followed Jesus that day somewhere near Aenon in the vicinity of Jericho would have put it this way.  Maybe their understanding of discipleship and vocation belonged too much to the habits and thought-forms of another age for me to suggest that they would put it the way Buechner does or the way I do.  But I am convinced that the most amazing thing about our Rabbi Jesus is that he demonstrated what it is to listen to your deep truth.  When we say that he is the Lamb of God, I think that that is the heart of what we mean.  He found his vocation not by imitating the prophets or the priests or the heroes of Israel, but by being himself. 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014

[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2000), Kindle version, loc. 49-59 of 1031. 
[2] Ibid., loc. 59 of 1031.
[3] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking:  A Theological ABC (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1973), quotation online at, accessed January 18, 2014.

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